TELLURIDE – There have been few films in recent memory that flip a switch like Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” does. Honestly, there are moments during the first half of this dramatic thriller where the clunky direction threatens to unravel the film; where scenes are not as sharp as they should be; where you wonder if Kusama could have filmed the proceedings in a more visually compelling manner. And then, out of nowhere, “Destroyer” just completely upends itself in a manner which is, in all seriousness, sort of amazing.
A world premiere at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival, “Destroyer” is structurally depicted in a loop, but that’s not apparent at first. Instead, what the viewer learns is that Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a worn-down LAPD detective who’s never truly recovered from the scars of an undercover assignment she participated in 16 years earlier. That investigation found her embedded in a criminal gang run by the reckless and off-kilter Silas (Toby Kebbell, getting typecast). Ever since a bank heist that involved Erin went wrong Silas has been in hiding. When Erin receives a purple colored $100 bill in the mail she knows he’s back in LA and everyone previously associated with him is in danger. After consulting with a friend at the FBI to confirm the bill was from the notorious robbery (the color was from an exploding dye pack), the detective essentially goes rogue to track him down.
As the picture progresses Erin uses her unorthodox skills to find members of Silas’ old gang who she then coerces into helping her figure out exactly where he is. This storyline intercuts with flashbacks to her time training with Chris (Sebastian Stan, perfect), an FBI agent who poses as her boyfriend in the gang, and how they earned the trust of Silas and his crew.
Erin is also preoccupied with her 16-year-old daughter Selby (Jade Pettyjohn, talented) who is skipping school and spending her nights with a sketchy twentysomething, Jay (Beau Knapp, effective). Shelby has little patience for Erin or her father Ethan (Scoot McNary, quite good), who legally has sole custody of the teenage girl. And considering how Erin behaves, who can blame her?
Erin is quite simply a piece of work. She’s rude, crude, devoid of any apparent emotion and, arguably, one of Kidman’s finest cinematic creations. At first, her disheveled appearance is slightly distracting, but once it flashes back to her time in undercover you realize just what hell she’s been through in the intervening years since (and, yes, the nose is explained). Initially, she comes across as just an emotionally stunted alcoholic with a thirst for revenge, but all is soon revealed.
As “Destroyer” progresses, Kidman peels back Erin’s scars one after the other and you see the soul of a woman trying to make things right any way she knows how. There is one particular scene late in the film featuring both Erin and Shelby where Kidman takes an uncomfortable dinner and turns it into a heartbreaking confession that leaves her daughter speechless. And thanks to Kidman by the end of it all you care for Erin’s plight, something that seemed impossible just halfway through the picture.
Kusuma also benefits from spectacular work from Tatiana Maslany as Petra, an ex-girlfriend of Silas who may hold the key to his whereabouts. Maslany is no stranger to physical transformations, but she’s almost completely unrecognizable here. And despite her ability to completely color in her character in a manner of minutes you wish she had a lot more screen time.
But let’s get back to that flip, shall we? There are twists and surprises in “Destroyer” and once they come to light Kusuma’s directorial choices are often spot on and inspired. Before then? Well, not so much and that’s the film’s noticeable flaw.
In one flashback scene with Erin and Silas, the director plays with audio by having some of the actor’s lines come out of their mouths and has the rest of it delivered via voiceover. Instead of bringing something unique to the picture it ends up being unnecessarily jarring more than anything else. There is also a confrontation between Erin and a rich lawyer who still has a connection to Silas (Bradley Whiteford doing Bradley Whitford things) that seems like it’s out of an entirely different movie.
And, no, it’s not ideal and it requires a certain amount of patience, but when Kusuma, Kidman and “Destroyer” finally kick it into high gear it’s so, so worth the wait. [B+]